Blog: Remembering the ‘banality of evil’ is of vital importance

Two young, Jewish UNISON members reflect on the significance of Holocaust Memorial Day

monochrome image of a lit candle

By Joshua Garfield and Izzy Lenga

Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil,” as a countenance to the often ubiquitous belief that evil is exceptional; that uniquely evil deeds are committed by uniquely evil individuals.

Offering up a thesis that evil is banal begs the question of whether we need to work harder to fight hate, because it is far more common than we are willing to admit.

The theme for this year’s international Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on 27 January, is Ordinary People.

Ordinary people were victims of the Holocaust, ordinary people perpetuated the Holocaust, and ordinary people did heroic things to rescue ordinary victims from the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Liberated on 27 January in 1945, Auschwitz Birkenau was the Nazis’ largest concentration camp, where 1.1 million people were murdered – a million of them Jews.

The Nazis and their collaborators murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust – more than two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. Without the banality of evil and without collaborators across the continent, the Holocaust could not have claimed so many innocent lives.

This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day also serves as a reminder that ordinary people can save lives and stop evil when they display extraordinary bravery.

Atrocities committed in the last century were all enabled by bystanders and onlookers. The ordinary people who failed to prevent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur all made choices – albeit sometimes impossible ones – that led to murder on an industrial scale.

But amid each catastrophe, there were ordinary people displaying extraordinary bravery, either by standing up to the persecutors, refusing to collaborate with murder or shielding victims from their latent fate.

As young Jewish trade unionists, we implore the members of our movement to understand the importance of commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day this year and every year.

Hatred never starts with genocide – it starts with rhetoric. The rise of the far right and of authoritarianism overseas threatens us all.

At home, attacks on minority groups are growing year-on-year. Hatred is on the rise and it is our job as a collective to fight it, and ensure that our extraordinary heroism is displayed by more ordinary people.

The Community Security Trust (CST) documents antisemitic incidents and tracks the impact of antisemitism in society and its prevalence, while working to combat it and actively protect Jewish communities.

Last year, it recorded 2,255 instances of antisemitic hate crime, including a spike in verbal abuse shouted from vehicles and 173 incidents of physical assault.

This represents a 34% rise since 2020 and the largest yearly record of antisemitic hate crime since CST began documenting as the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ Community Security Organisation in 1984.

These figures drive us to fight racism and remind us all why we cannot be bystanders to hate. We must robustly combat Holocaust denial and distortion. If every one of our one million-plus union stands in solidarity with victims of abuse and persecution, then we ordinary members can make a material difference to ordinary people’s lives.

The trade union movement draws its strength from its members. As the largest trade union in the country, we encourage UNISON branches to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day by accessing the resources available from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and to distribute copies of Hope Not Hate’s report on Antisemitism in the Digital Age – an insightful document outlining how social media giants have failed to counter extremism on their platforms.

We can resource ourselves to tackle antisemitism in our workplaces and our communities – we must stand resolutely against hate in all its forms.

Marking Holocaust Memorial Day